Ichiro Suzuki is 38 years old and is batting .263. Last year, the worst year of his MLB career, he batted .272. He turns 39 shortly after the season ends, so, to put it bluntly, Ichiro is a lifetime .323 hitter in decline. So far he has collected 2,498 hits during his more than 11 years in MLB, all of which have been with the Seattle Mariners.
Although getting 3,000 base hits is not out of reach, he is slowing down. He had 184 hits last year, well below his 162-game average of 223. He has collected more than 223 hits only once since 2008, and that recent downward trend is likely to continue. He would need to play three, full, highly productive years to reach 3,000 hits before his 41st birthday. That’s possible, but it also seems unlikely. It’s particularly unlikely if he continues to play in the field every day for a team that travels more miles than any other team in MLB year after year.
If he reaches 3,000 hits, he’s a shoe-in for Cooperstown. If he falls short, a number of other factors will be considered. Assuming he does not get 3,000 hits, should Ichiro be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in spite of his relatively short tenure in MLB? What if he retires at the end of this year? Should he be in? In a word, yes. Here’s why.
Ichiro has 10 Gold Gloves and 3 Silver Slugger awards. He was Rookie of the Year and league MVP the same year, a feat only one other player, Fred Lynn, has accomplished. He has two batting crowns, he led the league in hits seven times, plate appearances four times, stolen bases once, and has been an All Star 10 times. He holds the all-time record for hits in a single season with 262. A hefty list of accomplishments, but how do they stack up against other recent inductees?
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I checked out the list of players elected to the Hall of Fame from the last 10 years, including this year’s inductees, to see what it takes to be admitted nowadays. The only members I used for comparison were those who played in the majors in the last 40 years and were selected in the last 10 years. By my count, there are 18 such ballplayers. I was particularly interested in looking at those inductees who might be considered borderline.
The Baseball Writers’ Association of America has its own rules about who gets to vote, and frankly the process is a bit opaque. That being said, the voting results are usually greeted with general acceptance. However, there are some names that cause devotees to second guess the process. Four names jumped out at me. Not that all of these guys didn’t have exciting, successful careers; it’s just that some of them don’t seem to quite stack up alongside the Hall’s other greats. The four in that category, and the ones whose stats might provide the most insight into what it would take to make Ichiro a lock, were: Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, Ron Santo, and Bruce Sutter.
Dawson was the NL MVP in 1987. That year he led the league in homeruns (37) and RBI (137). He was also the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1977. Knee problems plagued Dawson, one of the most feared hitters of his era, for much of his career. In 21 years in MLB, he played in 150 or more games only 6 times. And his homerun total of 438 falls significantly short of the 500 homeruns usually considered an automatic invitation to join the Hall.
Sandberg, a lifetime .285 hitter with 282 home runs, played for 16 years. During those 16 years, Sandberg led the league in home runs once (40 in 1990), won 9 Gold Glove awards, and was an All Star 10 times.
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Santo, a lifetime .277 hitter with 342 home runs, played for 15 years and never won any major titles. He does, however, have some impressive awards to his name; he was an 8-time All Star, and won 5 Gold Gloves during his career. Although not elected to the Hall of Fame when he was eligible, he will enter – unfortunately posthumously – this year after having been selected by the Veterans Committee.
Bruce Sutter was in MLB for 12 years. Sutter was a relief pitcher who led the league in saves 5 of those 12 years. He was an All Star five times and won the Cy Young Award in 1979 when he recorded 37 saves.
So how does Ichiro compare? Ichiro and Dawson were both Rookies of the Year and MVPs. Dawson was an All Star eight times in 21 years, and Ichiro has been an All Star 10 times so far. Dawson played more than 150 games only six out of 21 years. Ichiro played less than 157 games only once in 11 years. Santo was an All Star 9 times in 15 years, and won 5 Gold Glove awards. In addition to Ichiro’s 10 All Star appearances in 11 years, he also has 10 Gold Glove awards, five more than Santo, and one more than Ryne Sandberg. Unlike Sandberg and Dawson, Ichiro has never led the league in home runs. However, he does have two batting titles, and holds the all-time record for hits in a single season. By the end of the year he will have played for 12 years, equaling Bruce Sutter’s mark. Otherwise, it’s tough to compare Sutter and Ichiro. Whereas Sutter led the league in saves 5 times, Ichiro has led the league in hits 6 times.
Ichiro seems to have a slight statistical advantage over this group of men whose selection to the Hall of Fame caused at least one fan, and I suspect more, to wonder exactly what the voters were thinking when they made these selections. So what might make Ichiro’s election a lock? It’s simple, actually.
Based on the selections of MLB players for the last 10 years, if Ichiro wants to be guaranteed election to the Hall of Fame at this point, he should demand that the Mariners trade him to the Chicago Cubs! Dawson played six of his 21 seasons for the Chicago Cubs. Except for 13 games with Philadelphia in 1981, Sandberg was a Cub his entire career. Santo played 14 of his 15 seasons for the Chicago Cubs, and Bruce Sutter played five of his 12 years for the Chicago Cubs. The one thing that these four picks have in common, and the one thing they do not have in common with any of the other inductees from the last 10 years, is their five or more years of MLB service with the Cubs. Given the quality of Cubs teams for the last 100 years or so, Ichiro can likely play another 6 to 10 years as long as he’s traded to the Cubs where a decline in quality is rarely noticed and even less often makes a difference. At that point, it’s a no-brainer; his stats combined with being traded/sentenced to the Chicago Cubs for an extended period will undoubtedly make him a lock for the Hall of Fame. Hey, Theo! Are you listening?